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Should Interns Be Paid?

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Our first intern of the summer, Phoebe, has written this excellent blog post on the value of paying or not paying a student during their internship. Read on for more...

With a rising average of 2.2 million students currently graduating from a UK university every year, it is without a doubt that a degree alone is no longer enough. With graduate figures indicating that 20% of all graduates achieved a first class degree in 2015, and a significant 51% left with an upper second, it is no surprise that the search for extracurricular activity has hit its peak within the last 5 years. Whilst many students are making conscious decisions to engage in such opportunities, the question lies in who is gaining more, and should the intern's wage be reflective of this?

Essentially, does a student's time equal money?

Is it illegal to not pay an intern?

With many internships being advertised as unpaid opportunities, it's a hot topic whether or not students deserve to be financially rewarded for their work. The law states that if an internship is advertised as either voluntary, part of a compulsory placement or to shadow a colleague, then technically they are legally not entitled to pay, especially if the position is for less than a year. But with the looming notion of brand transparency, it is the likes of Glassdoor and Rate My Placement who are exposing negative experiences within the working world. If an intern feels that they have been exploited throughout their time, it simply takes an (anonymous) unfavourable review to hit the web and be exposed for all to see. Many would question the attitude that just because you don't have to pay, it doesn't mean you shouldn't.

Why do companies opt for unpaid internships?

Just because an intern is not paid, doesn't mean that they don't come at a cost. It's a sure fact that many businesses provide excellent internship scheme, investing substantial time and money into ensuring that the experience is beneficial for both parties - even if the intern does not receive a wage. By providing focused training and consistent one-to-one contact, it is likely that colleagues alter their focus during the working day in order to nurture the intern. However, this could likely create a backlog of tasks that are not performed. This results in additional hours of work for the full-time employee, creating an increase in staff outgoings. Whilst businesses welcome interns with open arms, many justify that if it puts them at a disadvantage, then the grounds for lack of pay may be reasonable, especially for SMEs with a minimal budget.

Many would also argue that the opportunity to gain experience alone is rewarding enough. Students should be grateful in being able to simply slot into a working environment and gain invaluable knowledge and skills. An article by The Spectator suggested that by paying student interns, it removes their value of voluntarianism, and instead promotes a mentality focused on instant reward, unreflective of the real working world. Many suggest that an internship should be regarded as a taster into a particular profession; it is a snapshot rather than the whole picture (the whole picture being the gain of a working wage and the added stress alongside).

Why is it worth paying an intern?

The first thing to consider is that by not paying interns, you essentially are only supporting students from a more stable economic background. With sources such as Forbes Magazine suggesting that internships are crucial in the development of an individual's career, it is increasingly difficult for students from a lower socio-economic standpoint to engage in these opportunities. Many students are already up to their eyeballs in student debts; they rely on part-time jobs to fund their living costs, rent and travel. It is, therefore no surprise that internships become a burden if students are expected to work for free. In essence, unpaid positions only pose an attraction to students who are already financially sufficient, thereby creating a deficit in opportunities.

Furthermore, The Muse suggests that internships are more likely to be successful experiences, for both the intern and employer, if they are paid. If employers are providing a wage, then it is likely that the student's presence and time are significantly more valuable. Stereotypical 'internship' tasks, such as coffee-making and photocopying, may be minimised if payment is involved, with more emphasis on tasks that utilise their full abilities. A knock-on effect is therefore created, allowing individuals to feel valued within their positions. With interns feeling as though they are making an impact, it is likely to increase their enjoyment, enthusiasm and engagement in the programme. As it is said, you reap what you sow.

Students are unlikely to have an agenda focused on making a profit out of these opportunities, but more simply a concern to cover their costs (travel, food, missed work shifts). When deciding on whether or not a student intern should be paid, your decision should be based on the pros and cons for both your company and the student. A balance needs to be struck between enjoyment, performance and rewards. Remember, your brand's reputation is on the line.

phoebe pederson grb author

Phoebe is a GRB affiliate and former marketing intern. She studies English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham.

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